“Be careful what you teach the child, you may interfere with what he is learning.” –Magda Gerber
My son recently got it into his head that he HAD to try ice-skating. So, over the holidays we took him to one of the seasonal rinks set up around the city at this time of year for San Francisco kids who otherwise might never see a real ice-covered anything.
The rink was, as my Irish friends say, chock-a-block with kids and adults of all ages. I’d say the average skill level was Dangerously Unsteady, with a couple of Just-Starting-To-Get-It folks thrown in the mix. One very thrilled, Approaching-Intermediate-Level Dad was zooming around the rink, narrowly missing taking out an unsuspecting skater with each lap.
I took one look at this scene and immediately went into Professor Mom mode. We got my son’s skates on, and I started coaching him on how to walk over to the rink without breaking his ankle. We secured one of those skater-assistance devices that’s a bit like a walker on blades, and bravely hobbled onto the ice.
As we set off I carried on, offering suggestions for how he could smooth out his strides. “Look over there, honey—see how that kid is pushing her feet back behind her instead of stepping on the ice? And look at that mama there…”
He took this in silently for a few minutes. Then he said:
“Mom, let me try it my way for a little while. I need to do it on my own first.”
That shut me up pretty quick. Of course he needed to do it himself first. Would I like someone directing my every move the first time I tried something new?
Why We Teach
Of course, teaching someone something new feels good to us. We feel helpful and valuable. We feel that we’ve played a part in that person becoming a little more skilled, or confident, or thoughtful.
Like many parents, before I became a mom I thought that teaching my child things was one of my most important jobs as a parent. I looked forward to this, in fact, and felt it was bound to be one of the most rewarding parts of parenting.
In addition to feeling helpful and personally rewarded by our teaching, we often think that we need to teach our children things. It will make them smarter! They might even get ahead of the pack! Teaching will give them the edge they need to not fall behind, or feel lacking in any way.
Most of our instincts in this realm, like so much in parenting, come from a loving place. Of course we want to be helpful to our children, and to do what we can to support them to succeed.
The tricky thing about teaching is that sometimes, as infant expert Magda Gerber said, when we teach, we accidentally get in the way of what our child is already learning.
Magda Gerber became so knowledgeable about infants in part through her hours and hours of careful observation of babies. What she and others have noticed is that babies are learning from the moment they are born, often without us teaching them.
This is not to say that our presence, and even our help, are not important to our children. They most certainly are.
Without our loving attunement and attention, our babies cannot develop trust, security, and language. We are absolutely essential in helping our babies cultivate these important feelings, experiences, and skills. And attunement continues to be the most important thing we offer to our children as they grow.
But even without our “help,” our infants, toddlers, and children can do many things on their own. Without us teaching them how, babies will sit up, crawl, and walk on their own. They will figure out how to put that object into the container. They will master the art of jumping with both feet. And even start to get comfortable on ice skates.
The Benefits of Not Teaching
When I discovered Magda Gerber’s Educaring™ Approach, it was like a lightning bolt—it totally incinerated my idea of what parenting “should” look like. What rose from the ashes was something much more powerful, much truer to the person I wanted to be for my son.
I started to do things differently. If I didn’t teach my son how to do things that challenged him, how would that look? I began to slow down, and waited an extra few moments before helping him with things that challenged him.
I stopped holding his hands to help him learn to walk. I watched as he figured out how to balance with his feet under him, and come down into a squat before rising up again. And got to witness the surprise and pride on his face when he took his first steps.
I stayed nearby, but didn’t interfere when he worked to open lids, climb the stairs, and put on his own shoes. I saw his concentration, witnessed his tears of frustration, and marveled at his persistence at figuring things out.
Sometimes I had to hold my hands together so they wouldn’t reach out to do it for him. It got easier with time.
Each time I was able to do this, I was rewarded by seeing his growing confidence, skill, and ability. And more importantly, HE was rewarded. He got to feel the achievement that came from his hard work, and have it for himself.
His very first sentence was “I did it!” Music to my ears—and the look of pride and accomplishment on his face will stay with me forever.
The Added Benefit
When we let go of some of the teaching, another surprising thing happens.
Childhood is a time when so much of what happens to our kids is not up to them. Out of necessity, we make most of the decisions. We can help by offering our kids choices when it’s appropriate, but basically, we’re the boss.
When we step back from teaching our kids everything and allow them to learn certain things at their own pace, we put the reins in their hands for a little while.
And we also get the chance to be open to what they might teach us about who they are.
You might notice how persistent your child is. Or how cheerful she can be in the face of challenges. Or how much he just needs to vent his frustration before he tries again. How much she loves to try new things.
Ideas for Teaching Less
If you’d like to try this out at home, here are a few ideas.
Start slow. If your child is used to getting a lot of help from you, she might protest as you start to do less. Stay nearby and gradually see if you can do a little less, without withdrawing your supportive presence.
Give the minimal amount of help needed. When your child is working on or gets stuck with learning something new, come close and give your warm presence to him. If he’s happily working at walking, he might just need a shoulder to lean on/stagger into as he tries to get his balance. If she just can’t get that zipper to work, see if you can give just a tiny bit of help to get it attached—then let her do the rest. Soon enough they’ll be able to do it all by themselves.
Choose your words. It can be helpful to validate what your child seems to be feeling as she learns by saying a few words, like “I see you trying to get your knees under you so you can get your belly off the floor. You are working hard on learning to crawl!” or “Getting your foot inside that shoe can be hard! You seem frustrated. Would you like a little help or do you want to work on it on your own?” Gentle encouragement—even nonverbal—can help, but resist cheerleading too much. Sometimes over-encouraging can add pressure and additional frustration when our child is working on something new.
And let me know how it goes!